Sunday, September 6, 2009

Unwrap Deep-Gladness Gifts #2: Just "Sing"!


Sing a song

(Write what's yours...)

Make it simple
(Let it "sing out"...)

To last your whole life long

( your deep-gladness voice.)

Don't worry that it's not good enough 
(It's none of your darn sweet business...)

For anyone else to hear

(...what anyone else may say.)

Just sing

(Just write...)

Sing a song.

(...write what's yours.)

From dusky green Vermont hills
intoxicating breezes
and cricket symphonies

where I'm practicing what I'm preachin'
at a Fearless Writing Workshop,


Psst...Just do it...unwrap your deep gladness gift.


Note: Recognize the red lines that inspired this little post? Yep, it's the Sesame Street song, called Sing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tell Soulful Stories #2: A Full Book

"Every person is born into life as a blank pageand every person leaves as a full book." Christina Baldwin

How did it happe
n? I really did not intend to write a children's book about my grandmother.

Instead, I was quite sure that my story would gently tug at a knotty dilemma I was noticing among little kids (especially girls) who one day suddenly hate the name given to them by their parents.

if the name was old fashioned (read: not cool), the name of a relative (read: ancient) rarely seen, or worse, not even living. A name sometimes worn with embarrassed sighs or impatient eyes. A name like Stella.

My story also meant to glance at celebrity worship, which so many kids (and adults!) fall into, a quicksand of media-painted appearance, pedestaled performance, and ego-driven behavior—none of which remotely resembled my grandmother Stella.

Stella never won (or competed for) celebrity babe status. Never performed for anyone—unless feeding freshly baked bread/cakes/pies/donuts or myriad cooked dishes to anyone who crossed her home's threshold qualified as performance. As for ego driven, she was too busy spotting even a smidgen of appetite in visiting family and friends, no matter what time they arrived, to care about something she could do for herself, such as relaxing for ten minutes.

To my surprise, the story I began writing about unwanted names and celebrity veneer also became a story about my grandmother, Stella Kowalski Szaj, who died some eighteen years ago. A story beyond the facts (Oct. 12, 1895 - June 30, 1992) of her to the truth of her.

Decades ago, I used to tell my high school students that we need stories whenever we want to tell a truth that is bigger than fact. (Huh? Bigger than fact? Aren't stories just harmless fantasies?) I told them that a story tells truths that facts can't begin to touch, often about love or its opposite, fear. I wanted them to know something I finally knew: Story is for close-encounter truth.

Since then I've learned that telling close-encounter truth about a beloved family member or friend takes paying awesome attention, which kicks us out of orderly, chronological fact-land and sweeps us into the territory of entangling relationship. Truth, formerly the only child of Either/Or ("Either it's true or a lie," we often tell children), now multiplies into triplets: True, Truer, Truest.

And for me, telling the truest stories about our people especially means revealing how they unwrap their deep gladness gifts—and nourish the world, hungry to receive them.

True: my grandma offered food whenever her family and friends visited.

Truer: Grandma enjoyed watching us eat up her offerings.

Truest: Grandma
's feeding us, me, was her language of "I love you." I learned and now speak "Stella," sometimes with food, often with words.

In my story, Stella Means Star, a little girl named Stella, who hates her name, experiences close-encounter truth about her great-grandmother—a "meeting" that begins adding tiny sparkles of pride to her name tag.

To my delight, Stella Means Star also tells the truth about my grandmother: the essence of who she was then, and how she still lives me.

Come, cross this threshold. You just might remember someone gone or far away who still, in truth, lives...soulfully in you.

Story is the narrative thread of our experience
not what literally happens,
but what we make of what happens,
what we tell each other and what we remember."

Christina Baldwin

Stella Means Star

When I grow up, I'm going to change my name.

Or maybe I'll change it when I'm nine.

Then, when my mother says, "Stella, please come set the table," I'll have to stay sittin
g on my chair, reading my book, because I won't be STELLA anymore. Then, when she says, "Stella, please set the table" again, I'll have to finish my story because STELLA isn't my name anymore.

When Mommy says, "Stella, didn't you h
ear me? I asked you to set the table now," I will have to tell Mommy that (I am sorry to say) STELLA didn't hear her, because STELLA doesn't live here anymore.

Of course, I COULD chang
e my name when I'm eight.

Then, on the first day of school, when my new teacher calls the name of everyone who's supposed to be in my
class, no one will answer when she calls, "Stella? Raise your hand, please. Are you here?"

Everybody knows you shouldn't raise your hand and say "present" for the wrong name. I suppose that's when I'll have to tell her that STELLA doesn't go to this school anymore.

I might change my name tomorrow, on my birthday, when I'll be seven.

Then, when I meet that new girl I saw who is moving into the apartment building across the street, I will say, "Hello, my name is Cassandra. Or Belle. Or Jasmine. Or ArielLouiseSuzanne. What's yours?" (Her name WON'T be STELLA, either.)

This morning, my daddy found me copying names from some books for older kids that have lots of good names in them. I practiced writing some name I like: "Paloma"..."Guinivere"..."Amelia."

Daddy asked me if I was writing one o
f my super stories. I almost said, "Yes, I am," even though I really wasn't. I didn't want him to know that I didn't want my name anymore. I didn't want to hurt his feelings. So I said very fast, "No-I'm-finding-a-new-name."

Daddy asked me if the new name was for a school project. "Not exactly," I said.

For one of my dolls or stuffed animals then? "Not exactly," I said.

A pretend name for me or one of my friends? "No, Daddy," I said, "A real name...a new name for me."

Daddy looked at me without saying anything for a long time. I looked down at the names I wrote and wished I were invisible.

Daddy asked me if I knew
why he and Mommy named me "Stella." I said, Yes, because it was the name of his grandmother, which means she was my GREAT-grandmother. He said Yes, and that he had loved her a lot. I said, I know that, but....I stopped talking. I didn't want to tell him.

But Daddy waited and waited.

I took a big breath and said I didn't want the name STELLA anymore because nobody almost seven years old had that name...and because kids at school were always saying stupid things like "Stella Stella, Let's all yella, Stella Stella..." and because it's not a beau
tiful name like "Paloma" or "Natasha" or a special name like "Guinevere" or "Indigo" or a brave name like "Amelia" or "Pocahontas"...and because even though Stella was Great-granny's name, she died before I was even born.

Daddy looked surprised, like people do when they find out they're accidentally wearing two different socks.
Then he said Thank you, and that now he understood. He asked me if it would help to have my very own picture of the other Stella. I didn't think so, but I said okay.

He aske
d Mommy to please bring that picture of Stella when she was a bridesmaid a long time ago.

Mommy did and gave me this photograph with no color. I said thank you and stared at the la
dy in it.

She had curls in her hair that covered only one ear and
touched her shoulder. She wore some kind of fancy dress, and was holding some flowers, and smiled a little.

I told Daddy and Mommy that Stella looked kind of pretty, and maybe a little bit shy, but not really beautiful or special or brave. Mommy said, Oh, but Stella was all of those things.

She was special because she was gentle, kind, and generous. She never said anything awful about anyone, and she was always feeding lots of friends and family who dropped by her house, no matter what time of day or night they came.

She was especially
brave when two of her sons, who were only a little more than twenty years old, died in the same horrible war, one right after the other.

And all of these things made her very beautiful, Daddy said.

I didn't say anything else because I knew I had to think about Stella some more.
* * *
Tonight, I put Stella's picture on the table next to my bed.

I peeked at her just before I took my bath to see if she looked beautiful, like Daddy said.

I peeked at her again while I put on my pajamas to see if she felt special to me yet.

I peeked at her once more just before I climbed into bed to see if I could tell how brave she was.

She was still
giving me her little smile.

THEN, I remembered something very important.

I jumped out of bed, ran to the den, an
d took down our huge dictionary from the bookshelf. Mommy was always saying that a dictionary could tell you lots of interesting things. But could it tell me about "Stella"?

I turned the pages as fast as I could, past the G's, the S's, and the Z's. Past the names of American presidents, faraw
ay places, and famous artists. Then I found the names of people. There it was: "Stella"a name that means "star."

STAR! I'm Stella, but am I a star? My teacher said we all have little bits of stardust stuff in our bodies from sky stars that lived before there were people.

And everybody says stars are very beautiful people who act or dance or sing very well.

But now I think maybe stars can be people who have kind and generous and brave bits shining in themeven if they're NOT in the movies or on TV.

I'm Stella, and I'm a star.

Maybe I'll sing or dance or act someday.

Maybe I won't.

I hope that when I'm a grownup I can be a beautiful Stella-star, like my great-granny was.

Maybe I will start practicing tomorrow.

"...In the midst of overwhelming
noise and distraction,
the voice of story is calling us
to remember our true selves."

—Christina Baldwin

P.S. Christina Baldwin's
Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story is a rich, beautifully written book, combining personal stories (her own and those of other individuals) with those belonging to larger communities, including the human family itself.

Bonus: the author offers memory/story prompts for writing and conversation at the end of each chapter to become a "storycatcher." Plus she provides free storycatcher resources online on her Storycatcher Network page.

P.P.S. Yes, the photo of the demure bridesmaid is indeed my grandmother Stella, around 1918. And the the picture of the little girl with her grandmother? Uh-huh, me. Roughly the same age as my story's Stella-star.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pay Awesome Attention #2: Counting on Ten Zen Seconds

"How come you're always so slow?" my 7-year-old friend asked me, leaning on her scooter. "I got here long time ago."

A slight exaggeration. She had zipped ahead on her Razor, hair flying, one foot dipping and pushing, dipping and pushing, arriving at the front of the stairs leading to the sprinklers near our apartment complex only forty-five seconds before.

"I like taking my time," I said. "I'm a writer, and that's what writers do. We notice things."

She fired off one of her looksnarrowed eyes that say, Uh-huh, whatever you sayand scooted on ahead again.

That's what writers do? We notice things? Uh-huh, skeptic-self muttered. Well, we do, argued writer-me.

Except when we don't...when I don't.

Like when I'm chasing so many thoughts in my head while showering that I can't remember where I washed and where I didn't. As a result, I've had lots of sniffing practice: where do I smell like soap? Right arm? Check. Left arm? Check. (As for the parts I can't reach with my nose, well, let's just say a little extra washing never hurt me yet.)

Or when I'm walking down a New York City street, mentally whirly-gigging at high speed while doing errands. Notice things? Suddenly I look up: how did I get here? I don't remember seeing the blocks I know I must have passed.

Yes, I'm glad I'm capable of sustained thinking, focusing so intently that sometimes I hardly notice New York's wailing sirens and screeching bus brakes. (Yet on other days, not noticing the City's clamor is just not on my menu of possibilities.)

But the non-stop thought crankingwhich Zen Buddhists call "monkey mind"can't be a hospitable host to my favorite guests. Understanding. Insight. Connection. Creative breakthrough. Peace. Wisdom.

Instead of paying awesome attention, listening to what my life and Life itself want to say, I'm pulled into a parade of thoughts marching, marching one after another, a few demanding ones pushing rudely to the head of the line.

The problem is, the parade doesn't know when to quit, circling right back to march again and again, nagging: What do I do about ___? When do I ___? Should I ___? How much ___? When did I ___?

The problem is, anxiety, worry, distress, stress are conducting the parade music.

Round and round we go.

Fretting, fuming, fussing: I'm not getting enough done, not finding enough time or good ideas, not being enough, period. A thought hamster running around and around a "not-enough wheel" in my head.

How to stop, nobody knows.

As for what I really want: seeing, listening, creating, and writing in flow...? Where are they? Hiding, of course, waiting for the hideously squeaking thought wheel to halt.

Wait... I just remembered: I DO know how to stop this ride and that parade. Hallelujah! Just by switching to a simple, few-minute practice that always quiets me. Even in the midst of rushing, crushing New York City.

Ready to climb aboard? Good.

Then please, take a seat on the "Ten Zen Seconds" tour bus about to depart.

I picked up the book and read the back cover. I would find "instant calm in only 10 seconds" by reciting "12 incantations...?"* That's what therapist/creativity coach Eric Maisel's book, Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve Incantations for Purpose, Power and Calm, promised.

Uh-huh, whatever you say.

Sure, I'd worked with slow deep breathing and saying positive statements as separate experiments, with the former producing far better results than the latter. But how could combining the two make an appreciable difference? I shrugged and bought the book anyway. Might be fun to try someday.

And then, one day, after a disastrous teaching experience, I found myself in enough desperation do-do that any doubts about Ten Zen Seconds no longer mattered.

On that gray, late winter day, I had stood in the conference room, leading the first session of a two-part corporate writing workshop. Accustomed to cooperation from and, often, enthusiastic participation of my students during many years of teaching, I was shocked to be the recipient of obnoxious, resistant behavior from the employee participants. Clearly, they did not want to be in that room with me, doing that workshop. I was nearly ready to grant them their wish.

We survived the session, but for days afterward my mood swung like a pendulum, from how-dare-they! anger to how-can-I-fix-this? determinationand back again. I grabbed the Ten Zen Seconds book. A survival manual for the upcoming second session...?

At minimum, perhaps working with the incantations would release enough stress steam so that I could get through the workshop in one piece.

I didn't receive my hoped-for minimum.

Instead, a breath-taking maximum took hold and brought me paying awesome attention.

Early in the morning of workshop session two, I climb aboard the bus that will take me to my client's corporate location. The vehicle hardly pulls out of its Manhattan bus terminal slot when I begin to say the dozen Ten Zen statements, following the directions: recite 1/2 of each statement while inhaling for five seconds, followed by the statement ending as I exhale for five seconds.
I am completely / stopping.
I expect / nothing.

Inhale, exhale, moving through all twelve incantations.
I am / doing my work.
I trust / my resources.

(Yes, I still doubt. But I have nothing to lose, and a great deal to gain.)
I feel / supported.
I embrace / this moment.

I check in with myself after the recommended one complete round. Okay, I feel a bit better, but not enough to sustain me for the next eight hours. I begin repeating a second round of all twelve statements, as before, splitting each into two parts, five seconds breathing in, five seconds breathing out.
I am free / of the past.
I make / my meaning.

Then, a third round.
I am open / to joy.
I am equal / to this challenge.

The miles move past my window, and still I inhale and exhale, now speaking each sentence from memory.
I am / taking action.
I return / with strength.

Suddenly, I know it's time to stop the process. I feel completely calm and relaxed, all tiredness and anxiety gone. I test the results. I deliberately imagine the participants, including the most resistant ones. I recall the pain of the first session, looking for a leftover "ouch." No reaction. I remain serene and quietly assured of my skills. Best of all, I am sweetly unattached to any specific workshop outcome. I no longer clutch the customized workshop notebook I'd worked such long hours to create.

Soon after, I stand in front of the participants, recapping the first session's main content points. Now I am seeing them with different eyes, eyes that recognize the "bad behavior" of the first session simply as fear. Not of me, but of their jobs (which, I learn, many do not like), workload, and yes, in half of the group, inadequate writing skills.

I have not contracted to work individually with each participantwhich requires hours of private one-on-one assessments and suggestions. But I accommodate the apologetic organizer's request anyway. Easily. Smoothly. Energetically. With awesome attention gladly given to each participant.

Early evening. I am sitting in the bus again, homeward bound. An imaginary bouquet of many real thank you's and several requests for a return engagement accompanies me.

I breathe in and out, slowly and deeply, this time in gratitude.

I am a writer and teacher who, at my best, takes time to notice things... including when my thought wheel is frantically spinning, and the frenetic parade can't remember how to stop.


"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it,
I must listen to my life telling me who I am."

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

* Here's the complete list of Eric Maisel's twelve Ten Zen "incantations" with breathing in /breathing out breaks. Try the process the next time you need to turn off stress and turn on awesome attention. And yes, please do let me know what happens.

(Small confession: though the author suggests using the wording as given, I tweaked two of the twelve statements for a better personal fit. Hey, I'm a writer!)

I am completely / stopping.
I expect / nothing.

I am / doing my work.

I trust / my resources.

I feel / supported.

I embrace / this moment.
I am free / of the past.

I make / my meaning.

I am open / to joy.

I am equal / to this challenge.
I am / taking action.
I return / with strength.

(Incantations printed here with permission of author Eric Maisel.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nourish This Awakening World #1: Wake Up, My Love

Yoo-hoo...anybody there?

Yes, you with the eyeballs scanning this page.

Wait...don't flit away.

Stay a while...please.

Take off your to-do's
stretch your gotta-get-going
make yourself comfortable.

What can I get you:
Some reflections to ruminate on?
A story to slowly digest?
A snippet of poetry or prose to savor later?

Come in, stay a while, enjoy your visit.

Um, but first, could you please wipe your feet a few more times on the welcome mat?
(You won't take it, when you leave...right? Welcome mats cost so much these days.)

Oh, and one more little thing: if you could just put your hand on this inkpad..? The fingerprinting won't take long. I promise.

No, really, I mean it. Come in. (Just don't take what's not yours.)
Stay a while. (Just don't steal anything that's mine.)'re leaving so soon? (Make sure all my words are put back where they belong, okay?)

Fear is an awful host.

Ah, but you're just being realistic, you might tell me.
This is how the world is, you might advise.
People steal stuff, defraud, make a profit from what belongs to someone else. The news proves this everyday. You gotta protect yourself. That's the truth.

Except that for me it's not...the whole truth, that is.

Sure, daily doses of names, dates, and deeds factually document the dangers of those who turn over their savings, creations, hearts to others. Suckers. Wise up, people. Don't show anyone (except maybe your family) anything valuable without first padlocking it, copyrighting it, or attaching an alarm. People will steal your stuff, you know, given half a chance.

Well, yes, they might.

But here comes the whole-truth part: if I don't freely give what is deepest in me, dearest to me, I can't be received—by you or anyone.
And if I'm not received, I can't fully unwrap the gifts that I am.
I remain securely bound by wrappings and decorations. Boxed in. Safe. Intact. And unopened.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, before the night of his ghostly visitors—and his eleventh hour rescue from his smallest, fearful self.

In Charles Dickens's 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol, Scrooge—"a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner"—clings to his Midas-touch for conducting business and making money. Piles of it.

No welcome mat lies at Scrooge's door. Only misery. A mother who died in his childhood, an indifferent father who sent him away to school, a loving fiance who broke her engagement with him—all stockpile Scrooge's fear of personal relationships and stoke his fierce determination to lockbox massive amounts of money. All chain his heart, imprisoning him. He can't give to those who need his generosity, and can't receive from those who want to love him.

Enter the chain-clanking, moaning ghost of Scrooge's dead partner, Jacob Marley. Jacob Marley, former excellent businessman who learned too late that humankind was his true business. Jacob Marley, a zombie forever condemned to walk the earth helplessly witnessing human suffering without being able to help in any way. Jacob Marley, who tries to save Scrooge from the same hellish fate by arranging three hauntings from Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

The Scrooge story has a happy ending, of course. After seeing a vision of his own grave and no one to celebrate his life or mourn his death, he throws off his smallest, fearful self, deliriously dancing and whooping his glee. Freely and lovingly sharing his wealth, himself. Forevermore.

Nice story. But what's wrong with making lots of money, especially if you're fantastically good at it? Nothing. It's just that making money isn't Scrooge's deepest, dearest gift—which remains unwrapped and unopened until the hauntings scare him awake.

What is? A heart-singing trio.
And giving these gifts with no strings attached, in turn, saves him.
Not just because the eventual recipients of his wealth are healed (Tiny Tim), grateful (the charitable men and Bob Cratchit's family), and joyful (nephew Fred).
Because their gratitude, joy, and willingness to receive the real Scrooge, despite decades of mistreatment by the former skinflint, heals Scrooge.

Unless I am received, I remain unclaimed, unwrapped, uncirculated. Alone. Miserly. Miserable. Sort of dead.

Money, words, hearts: all need to circulate, "to follow a course that returns to the starting point." When circulation—whether within an individual body or among billions of people—slows, clogs, ceases, we become ill. And what if no one loves us enough to awaken us from our grasping, scraping, clutching little selves to be the gifts we already are...? We shrivel and die.

So does the world, a little at a time, each time you or I shrink into our smallest, fearful selves, holding back the awesome attention and deep-gladness gifts we were made to offer to each other.

I'm seeing and listening to more and more good news lately. The world is yawning, slowly waking from a centuries-old comatose belief that what I do "is none of your business." That if you are not in my family or other approved tribe, I am separate and unrelated to you. That stockpiling my fame and fortune at all costs is "job #1."

Little by little
we're stretching into a heart-singing knowing
and connecting with
and celebrating
that we, everyone of us together, are job #1.

Look around:
See us standing on welcome mats
holding out minds, hands, hearts
with money, words, ourselves
ready to be received
by a world that deeply needs us.

I have heard it all my life,
A voice calling a name I recognized as my own.

Sometimes it comes as a soft-bellied whisper.
Sometimes it holds an edge of urgency.

But always it says: Wake up, my love. You are walking asleep. There's no safety in that!

One day, I am sitting at a children's book fair, with two of the books I wrote stacked on the table in front of me. A mom walks into the room with her daughter, who is about seven years old. Surveying the books on the tables nearest the door, where I am located, the mom spots my first children's book, I Hate Goodbyes.

"Oh, look," she says to her daughter, "the author has written another book. We'll have to get this one too, won't we?"

Her daughter nods eagerly, taking the book from her mom, beginning to read it.

The mom looks up, noticing me. "Are you the author?"

I nod that I am.

"I have to tell you. We moved here recently, which terribly uprooted and upset my daughter. She didn't like her new school and didn't want to learn. Then we got your book, which I read to her many times, at her request."

I am pleased; I know my book must be hitting an emotional home run with the little girl. Exactly the kind of reception an author wants.

The mom glances at my nametag. "Kathy, there's more. My daughter learned to read with your book. It's the first one she ever read by herself. Now she's doing fine at her new school and loves to read."

Her daughter looks up at me, smiles shyly, then returns to reading my—her—new book.

I swallow, trying hard not to cry in front of them.

Show me how you offer to your people and the world
the stories and the songs you want our children’s children to remember. And I will show you how I struggle
not to change the world,
but to love it.

Yoo-hoo...anybody there?

Ah, there you are.

Please come in
take off your smallest, fearful self
and stay a while.

What can I get for you?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Good-news goodies:
* poem excerpt from
The Call by Oriah
** poem excerpt from The Dance by Oriah

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unwrapping Deep-Gladness Gifts #1: The Voice

Trust me.

It was not noble.
It was not pretty.
It was, quite frankly, largely lust...

...the pens, pencils, and erasers (Ooh!)
...the stacks of scrap paper and occasional tablet of pristine new paper (M-m-m!)
...the box of brazen, color-shouting crayons (Yes-s-s!)
...the stacks of books, old and new, pages yearning to be read (Come to me, ba-by.)

...and the raw power of being She Who Must Be Obeyed. (Ah-h-h.)

Presenting: my first reasons for wanting to become a teacher. Really.

Back then, at age eight or nine, my “classroom” venue varied from the pink-walled bedroom I shared with my sister to my favorite “school” location: Grandma and Grandpa's third floor barn-turned-garage attic. Here among the alluring remnant goods of Grandpa's various entrepreneurial ventures, chomped evidence of squirrels and mice, and plenty of reasons to sneeze, I jumped at every chance to stand in front of “my class” (my older brother, younger sister, and sometimes my cousin, seated in a tidy row of makeshift “desks”). Of course, I gave them lots of “assignments”―involving plenty of pens, pencils, crayons, papers, and books.

Curiously, although we officially took turns being the teacher, my siblings and cousin often let me be the teacher. For some reason, they often followed my “teaching” instructions, until in later years they discovered the pleasures of being unruly―something none of us dared to be in “real school.”

Lucky for me (and my future real students), the siren call of irresistible teaching materials and authority morphed into something bigger...deeper...glad-er.

I remember the moment as a real teacher when I read Frederick Buechner's definition of vocation (from the same root word as “voice”) or calling as “that place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep hungers.” I shivered in recognition. In this elegant phrasing, he extracted from my memory something I had never learned but already knew.

“Playing school” handed me the first piece of my deep gladness puzzle.

What deep gladness puzzle piece(s) did you receive in your childhood? What happened?

Hundreds of workshops and Web sites and thousands of books and experts offer advice, inventories, and other personal/professional development tools. Want to identify your strengths, abilities, and skills to find a job, change careers, earn more income? Click here, please.

Or perhaps you're eager to locate life passion and purpose. A growing multitude of personal coaches are lined up, ready to assist. All of these resources can be helpful and even life changing―if, as I have personally experienced, the individual learner or client is receptive and ready to change.

But the sheer proliferation of these resources tells me something more than individual human development is happening. Something on a collective scale. Something that looks beyond a separate me in search of a we're-in-this-together we.

We is the address where deep gladness lives.

Knock on the door and deep gladness answers if we're willing to risk walking past something we're really good at―and often perform with little sense of contribution or joy―to remember the bliss we abandoned as "childish" play.

Deep gladness answers whenever we, waving at individualism (sitting alone in its favorite cafe, drinking lattes just the way it likes them), remember to return home to the little neighborhoods and big world that hold our shared hungers, hopes, and dreams.

Deep gladness answers when we're ready to fall in love―with our own lives, and where they ache to take us. From resumes to inborn gifts. From just-me to we.

Where does your life ache to take you?

I invite deep gladness to come closer―
I switch my looking
same-old scenes of faceless crowds
entering and exiting subway cars
to seeing
freckled faces of a redheaded family
―mom, dad, sister, brother― laughing
(and I just have to laugh, too).

I enter deep gladness when I (temporarily) park my anxious questions―
  • How much money can I make from this idea, project, book, blog?
  • Which people in this room will speak with me, like my ideas, send me potential clients?
―outside the welcome mat.

I speak from deep-gladness gift―
Suddenly, the thing I am saying to my students
flows through me
as if I am a pipeline to a river that is much larger
than my small stream.
At these times a knowing whooshes through:
I am in exactly the right place
at the ri
ght time
with the right people
doing the right thing.

I forget (momentarily) my limits inside deep gladness―
Instantly, a powerful conspiracy takes over:
everything I see, everyone I meet, shows me
possibility (what could be)
purpose (what needs to be)
passion (what wants to be)
potential (what is ready to be)
or promise (what intends to be)
in ways I've never, ever imagined.

I return to deep-gladness gift
(after getting disconnected for the umpteenth time)―
I halt my struggle to write the “right words” here
to watch mounds of blue-gray density dance
with streaks of radiant light
in eye-popping cloud performance
outside my eleventh story window.

What disconnects you from your deep gladness?

Once upon a time, my usual writing performance consisted of lots of crossing out, scads of paper ripping and throwing, and copious tears. Oh, I could write competently enough―with enough suffering. Writing was my tortuous un-gladness.

Once upon a time, I am rescued. My knights are Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and the enthusiastic support of a dear writer friend. I live happily ever after: scribbled-out, fast first drafts that are too wordy, too wandering, and maybe even just plain suck become my intimate, if unpolished, companions in discovering my voice.

What rescues and reconnects you?

I scan the virtual horizon. My deep gladness monitor immediately shows me the face of Susan Boyle, who, one fine day in April 2009, stunned U.K. television viewers and, a few days later, the online world in the moment she opened her mouth to sing the first notes of I Dreamed a Dream from the musical
Les Mise

Her story statistics are nearly legendary by now: a 48-year old church volunteer with untamed hair from a small Scottish village. Oxygen deprived at birth causing some learning difficulties. Living alone with cat, Pebbles, after the death of her mother two years ago. Often taunted by village children and called “Susie Simple” by some village adults. Often described by the press as “frumpy,” “plain,” or other even less flattering descriptors. Instantly dismissed by rolling eyes and smirks from Britain's Got Talent judges who are about to rate her audition.

But Susan Boyle knows from the age of 12 that she is a singer, and all she needs is a chance to “make that audience rock....All my life I've striven to prove myself,” she said just before singing on the British talent show, “like I can be accepted that I'm not a worthless person people think I am, that I do have something to offer.”

“Something to offer”?

According to a Susan Boyle fan site, as of June 29, 2009, all YouTube videos of Susan's performances received an estimated 425,000,000 views―this, within ten weeks. Three months after her audition, Susan is recording her first CD, with millions already pre-ordered. 10,000,000 CDs will be sold in the U.S. alone, one of the judges is predicting.

Susan Boyle opens her mouth to sing―and her gift immediately pulls us to our feet in clapping joy and awestruck wonder.

Trust me.

Your deep-gladness gifts―which the world deeply needs―are calling.

With or without applause.

Just check your voice mail.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly
gnized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do....

(excerpt from “The Journey” by Mary Oliver)

Extra, Extra!
* Meredith Vieira recently (7/22/o9) interviewed Susan Boyle
* The full text of "The Journey" is in Dream Work by Mary Oliver, and the poem is also printed online.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Soulful Stories #1: Will It Be Okay?

I don't usually fall instantly in love. So I am speechless on this day in Toronto to find myself completely surrendering to a stranger, one that I can't not take home with me. An unexpected stranger with a voice that fearlessly speaks the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity.

Like many love affair stories, this one occurs while I am doing something else. I had traveled to Canada from my home in Wisconsin to attend a weeklong workshop in story from a self-described “Itinerant Fool,” the late Ken Feit. I remember Ken as a complex, paradoxical man—gentle, yet fierce; joyful and angry—whose marriage of imagination and message in his teaching and performances both enchanted and provoked me. Ken included children's books within his storytelling tools—I recall Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books, endearing stories of friendship, and Hyemeyohst Storm's telling of a soaring American Indian “medicine” tale, Jumping Mouse, were among them. Listening to Ken, I gulped these down like a life-saving meal after prolonged hunger. No, I did not have children to read to, and I taught older kids, not younger ones. (And as for writing children's books1. twenty years later, I had no clue then.) It didn't matter: whatever else I took home from that workshop, children's books would have to be a part of my life.

I couldn't wait for my first rendezvous.

At Ken's suggestion, I find myself in a Toronto children's book store, wandering the aisles in search of the books he's already shared. Hugging these securely in my arms, I give in to the lure of enticing titles and jubilant colors of other children's books. I pick up one after another, scanning often turning into full reading, putting each book down again, sometimes in tears, sometimes shaking with giggles.

Then it happens...the encounter...when time and place blur while focus crystallizes on a single love object: Will It Be Okay?, an unassuming children's book written by the the fantastically named Crescent Dragonwagon.2. I open the cover and read the summary: “A mother comforts a child about her special fears concerning dogs, thunder, snakes, and other things.” I find much, much more.

Will It Be Okay? is a tender love story. Unconditional, neverending love between a mother and her little daughter, for sure, and depending on reader perspective and need, perhaps also that thick-or-thin love that persists between some committed lovers, within some families, and among some life-long friends.

Still, I sense another layer of love, another relationship is embedded in those pages. A relationship that joins you and me to the Source of Life with its many names—God, Mystery, All That Is. A relationship that the author herself confirms in her dedication: “To the One who's always with us, whispering 'It's okay!' this book is humbly and lovingly offered.”

Even so, falling in love with a children's book...?

Okay, perhaps you and I are no longer afraid of little things like big, barking dogs; thunder and lightning storms; snakes that might appear in the night; huge piles of snow; and cabbages that don't grow.

Perhaps trifling events such as getting a little soap in an eye or water splashed by a zealous parent trying to clean up a messy kid would not shake us, as it clearly did a little boy I heard yesterday in full-throttle meltdown in the bathroom of a favorite cafe.

Perhaps our fears—wearing numerous clever costumes: anxiety, exhaustion, frustration, anger—are more...reasonable, or at least justified. Loss of homes and jobs, an unstable economy and family life, disposable values and relationships, crumbling trust in corporations and institutions certainly are worth worry, meltdown, and despair.

Certainly, believing that “everything is okay” is child's play. And as for adults like Trevor Romain3. whose blog bursts with such Pollyanna goodies as, “”Everything is all right in the end. If it's not all right, then it's not the end”...what planet is this guy living on?

Time to put the snarky thoughts (wearing yet another fear costume) aside and tell the real truth.

I bought Will It Be Okay that day because of the mother's answer to the child's—and my—final and painful question: “But what if you die?” (What if I am left completely alone in the world, powerless without love?) That will never happen, the mother says: “My loving doesn't die. It stays with you...When you remember you and me, you say: What can I do with so much love? I will have to give some away. So you love thunder and lightning, dogs, snakes, snow, and planting cabbages....”

Many years, cities, and work assignments have passed since I, a fully grown adult, fell heart-over-head in love with that children's book. It accompanies me to each new home, speaking the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity—that I still need to hear:

So will it be okay?”

Yes, my love, it will.”

Hey, other children's book lovers:

  1. For a list of my own published children's books as well as several annotated lists of kids' books that I especially love, please visit my Web site:

  2. Crescent Dragonwagon (daughter of legendary children's book author and editor, Charlotte Zolotow) books are easily available...except Will It Be Okay?, which is (sadly) out of print. A few pricey used copies are available here, and the complete text of the book is online at Steve Krause's Stories for Free Children Web site.

  3. Fortunately, author/illustrator Trevor Romain is firmly living—and loving—on planet earth. See his blog for a moving narrative and graphic record of his work with terminally ill kids.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pay Awesome Attention #1: Bathroom or Bust (and Trust)


I've done it so many times, I cringe to count.

I need to go to the bathroom. (But I can wait.)

I should go to the bathroom. (Aw, I'm kinda busy right now. I'll go soon.)

Yikes...I gotta go to the bathroom now! (Whew, I just made it.)

How embarrassing.

But I am in good company.

My new little childcare friend, age 7, gets so involved with the book she is reading or making, or the design she is drawing or coloring, that only enough wiggling and jiggling send her flying into the bathroom in time.

My 5-year-old niece, engrossed in a new story she is making up or enthralled with the current episode of “The Amazing Misadventures of Pippie, the Naughtiest Teddy Bear in the Whole World” that I am spinning, suddenly clutches herself and says, “Ooh, I hafta go to the baffroom” and executes a dash worthy of a seasoned athlete.


Now, I am not 5 or 7 years old, nor recently potty trained. Yet often enough I am just as reluctant to break away from whatever I am doing to take care of nature's insistent call. Even “knowing better” doesn't prevent me from overlooking body signals like a full bladder or an empty, rumbling stomach.

Why do I do it? Because so many important things—tasks, desires, plans, thoughts—grab my attention. Like the little girls, I can easily become intensely absorbed by whomever or whatever is in front of me.

Lucky me, right? I mean, isn't this single-minded focus exactly what exasperated parents and teachers request (demand?) from fidgety or dreamy-eyed kids? What frustrated spouses and impatient employers expect from half-listening or time-frittering adults? Don't we want kids and adults to be fully focused on the story, task, or conversation at hand—and then move on to the next person or thing to be heard, done, nodded to?

Sure. Single-minded, checklist attention gets things done, and I will continue to use it.

But here's the sneaky double-pronged paradox for me:

Laser-beam attention on something external I am doing

while ignoring an essential inner signal

is not awesome attention.

And intense concentration on someone only to dismiss her or him

in my mind afterwards as no longer useful, entertaining, or valuable

is not awesome attention.

And more and more, I want to pay awesome attention

awesome attention that awakens me

at this fresh moment

to the goodness

in me, in you


Awesome attention is fed by our ancient instinct for awe, that open flow of wonder and gratitude that says, Wow, I have this body that knows exactly when to inhale and exhale, precisely when to shut down in sleep to repair itself, and to my relief, pointedly when it needs to remove excess liquids and solids.

And awesome attention is when I can notice your shadowed eyes, carrying fatigue, overwhelm, or sorrow...and silently hold you in my heart.


Awesome attention is strengthened when I tune into a flash of intuition (“inner knowing”)—without categorizing it as trivial, useful...or anything at all.

And awesome attention is when I hear you wistfully describe to me yet again a vague idea, a maybe-someday wish—without needing you to make it happen on my if-I-were-you timetable...or ever at all.


Awesome attention is sustained when I recognize Life itself is calling me right now to

slow down

be still

notice my fingers moving on this keyboard

look up and see the sun making shadows with the leafy tree branches

—all without expecting an inspired flow of words to pour out as my reward.

And awesome attention is when I can see you rushing around, stressed out—and neither scold you nor try to fix you (because, of course, I know how).


Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls awesome attention presence and the power of now. Others name it mindfulness, which mediation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “awarenessing...befriending this deep capacity of the heart and stand in how things are now.”

I can only do this “standing in how things are now”—this being a witness without tinkering, this being-with without interpreting—one moment at a time. Lucky me: despite years of thinking tomorrow won't give me what I want unless I plan, that's all that Life ever gives us: one moment at a time.

Do I, once upon a time a fierce devotee of making-it-happen (or for sure it wouldn't happen at all), trust that this gift of moment by moment is enough?

Do I trust that I am enough—just as I am, in my current work-in-progress version of Kathy—to receive and open this gift ?

Right now, I will say yes to both.

Even as I notice I need to go to the bathroom again.

Isn't that awesome?